The Bird Meme: Day 21

Day 21: Favorite bird from your childhood

Evening Grosbeak

Ah, here's an unusual case: a bird I saw long, long ago and have never quite gotten over.

The Evening Grosbeak is, as you might guess, an extremely memorable bird. Blessed with one of the best common names in North America, it's also striking in appearance. The male's yellow eyebrow is distinctive, but the huge dark head and pale beak are also obvious field marks. In some ways, though, my favorite feature is the way its plumage shades from the dark head to the yellowy back and shoulders and finally to the pure white secondary wing feathers. It really does resemble an evening sky, from dark zenith down to bright horizon.

It's also a bird of mystery. Though its typical habitat is far north and/or west of my home, it will on occasion make a winter migration southward, sometimes as far as southern California or the Gulf of Mexico. On these unpredictable occasions, flocks of a dozen or more grosbeaks may turn up on the roadside, or under a feeder, surprising and delighting those who are not used to seeing them.

My family was once among this group. We were living in the first house I remember, a green three-bedroom place atop a low hill on Tinkerbell Road in east Chapel Hill, almost at the Durham County line. Though neither I nor my parents had become serious about birding at the time, my folks were nonetheless aware of my youthful fascination with animals. In that house, where we lived from 1964 until the summer of 1970, I began to develop interests in subjects that would shape my future: in books, in nature, in geography, in music, and in breakfast cereals. In birds, my interest may well have been intensified during the winter of 1968, when I was not quite five, and our yard filled up with gold-and-white songbirds. It was an irruption year for Evening Grosbeaks.

I can barely remember that time, but I remember seeing the birds clustering under the feeder, setting their massive shoulders against one another to clear space. Mom took pictures of them as well, and somewhere in my parents' house are the photos of those winter days, when I began to understand the myriad forms into which nature has been shaped, and to understand that not all of them are there every day. Sometimes, I realized, something special would come to you. Or perhaps you would have to go out and find it.

That was nearly half a century ago, and I have not set eyes on an Evening Grosbeak since. But even though I don't have its sighting carefully filed in my forebrain, where I keep data on first looks at everything from the Canvasback to the Painted Bunting, I feel rather possessive about the bird. It's primal, pre-rational, and precious to me. When I see one again, I will feel as though I have in some ways circled back to my childhood, and I will taste once again that sweetest of flavors: the milk at the bottom of the bowl.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on October 7, 2017 12:03 PM.

The Bird Meme: Day 20 was the previous entry in this blog.

The Bird Meme: Day 22 is the next entry in this blog.

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